Editor’s note: This is the first segment of a five-part interview with Michael T. Rains, who was Director of the Northern Research Station at Newtown Square, Pennsylvania for 15 years and, concurrently, Director of the Forest Products Laboratory at Newtown Square for three years. He retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 2016. In earlier capacities, he was Deputy Chief of the Forest Service for State and Private Forestry, Washington, D.C.; Director of State and Private Forestry for the Northeastern Area, Radnor, Pennsylvania; and Director of Information, Resources Management and Business Operations for the Forest Service, Washington, D.C.
Mr. Rains attended five universities: Humboldt State at Arcata, California; the University of Mississippi at Oxford; Georgia State in Atlanta; the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and West Chester University at West Chester, Pennsylvania. His undergraduate degrees are in forestry, economics and labor relations, and his master’s degrees are in public administration, watershed management and secondary education.
We have known of Mr. Rains and his exceptional work for many years, most recently through the National Wildfire Institute, founded by our colleague, Bruce Courtright. When we were preparing questions for Interim Forest Service Chief, Victoria Christiansen, Mr. Rains volunteered to answer the same questions, in part because his name made the rounds before Tony Tooke was named Chief. Mr. Tooke recently resigned amid sexual harassment accusations. Ms. Christiansen was named Interim Chief days later. You will find our subsequent interview with Ms. Christiansen posted elsewhere on our site.
When Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, announced Ms. Christiansen’s appointment, we asked Mr. Rains for his assessment because she worked with him as part of the Forest Service leadership team when he was running the Northern Research Station. He expressed great pleasure in her appointment.
Mr. Rains is a brilliant but exceedingly humble man, so when he agreed to answer these questions, he wanted it made clear that he was “simply sharing his voice” with anyone interested in his perspectives.
EVERGREEN: Mr. Rains, let’s begin with some questions related to Tony Tooke’s recent resignation from his post as Forest Service Chief. During your years in the Forest Service, were you aware of any incidents of sexual harassment. If yes, what did you know, when did you know it and what did you do about it?
RAINS: If the incident occurred within my unit, I would know. Otherwise, I did not. Allow me to explain. Due to important issues of confidentiality, it would be uncommon for me to know what was happening outside my unit. Sometimes I might hear about complaints, but honestly, not that often. I know that sounds odd, even as I say it. I was a senior line officer for 30 of my 48-year career in the Forest Service and attended more National Leadership Council (NLC) and Regional Forester and Director (RF&D) meetings that anyone; 124 by my count.
EVERGREEN: So how could you or anyone else working at your level not know?
RAINS: Precisely. How could I not know? Well, except for total numbers of complaints – national level statistics – specific knowledge of specific incidents was largely absent at least to me. The first time I became aware of the egregious nature of some of the complaints on sexual harassment and retaliation was during a meeting on “Cultural Transformation” and later, watching the House Oversight Hearing in December 2016, both just a couple of weeks before I retired.
EVERGREEN: You must have been astonished by what you heard.
RAINS: Embarrassed would be a more accurate word. Bear in mind that within the Units I supervised – my last assignment as Director of the Northern Research Station and Forest Products Laboratory – I believe I knew most of what was going on and I aggressively addressed discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation or any other issue that had any negative impact on the workplace environment.
EVERGREEN: You must wonder at times what the hell was going on elsewhere in The Forest Service.
RAINS: Not so much that as the awkwardness and discomfort that comes from now knowing what I did not know then as to the magnitude of the sexual harassment and retaliation that was happening. I was one of the leaders. I wonder, how could I have missed this?
EVERGREEN: How then did you miss it?
RAINS: I won’t make excuses, nor should anyone that worked at my level, but about three-fourths of my career was spent in three major mission areas: Administration, State and Private Forestry and Research and Development. Yes, there were complaints at times, but not that many. For example, in the Northern Research Station, there were years with one or two and sometimes no complaints filed. This is one reason why the recent revelations are so surprising to me. I understand that the absence of formal complaints does not necessarily equate to bad things are not happening. But, I simply did not see then what I am hearing now.
EVERGREEN: There seems to be a cultural climate in the Washington office that discourages aggressive action against reports of sexual harassment?
RAINS: I am not sure about that. I had four different tours of the National Office during my career. I was aware of some EEO complaints, but I cannot say with certainty that I was aware of specific complaints and details regarding sexual harassment and/or retaliation or any discouragement of addressing the complaint at hand. I will say, the last 15 years of my career were at the field level, so my recollections may be dated.
EVERGREEN: Possibly but given continuing reports from Forest Service women who are coming forward, we find it hard to believe that anyone at any level could have come to work daily without hearing something about the problem.
RAINS: During my career, I tried to be very direct with all complaints. I was obligated to do so. I always believed that swift action was the benchmark to success. If there was even a rumor of someone being mistreated, the issue was addressed immediately. I assumed others in the agency were just as aggressive.
Having said this, I am still haunted by the reality that “I was there?” Just a bit more than two years ago I was part of the top leadership for over three decades. Being unaware feels very hollow.
To effectively correct this, the Forest Service probably needs a significant change in leadership at the top. We need a Chief that represents a new era and I think that type of person probably should not be anyone from the agency, past or present. I am beginning to wonder if you are constantly surrounded by the same, can you avoid excessive conformity, whereby change becomes too difficult and excuses for inactivity become normalized?
EVERGREEN: How widespread do you think sexual harassment has become?
RAINS: I am not sure. But, indications are clear it is widespread throughout the public and private sector. A recent poll suggests that about 70 percent of women in the workplace have experienced some type of sexual harassment. This is a stunning figure. Until now, I would have never expected the Forest Service to come close to this figure. Now, I do not know – so more reasons for developing an aggressive and immediate call to action.
EVEERGREEN: Might this mess somehow be related to the fact that the Forest Service has been a “man’s” organization for most of its history?
RAINS: Maybe. Recently, an associate and I were talking about this very thing and the discussion between us went, in part, like this:
“From the outset in 1905, the Forest Service has been a “macho” organization. And let’s face it. We can often be real jerks. Assertiveness inside the agency and with the public served was always rewarded. They wanted strength of character, ability to deal assertively with any situation, and do it alone if necessary. One was expected to hit the ground running. And, if you want to make it around here, you will do whatever it takes.”
EVERGREEN: Add to this the fact that the Forest Service was one of the most admired organizations in the country according to a Collier’s magazine survey in the early 1950s – rated tops along with the United States Marine Corps.
RAINS: But that was then. This is now and any type of behavior that runs counter to showing the upmost respect and dignity to all fellow employees is simply bullshit. Perhaps Lena Waithe (actress, producer, and screenwriter) has the best advice for men: “Don’t be a dick.”
Somewhat softer, we need to listen to Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, who said, “I would change our culture, which teaches us – women and men – that men should achieve, and women should support others. The truth is that everyone should achieve, and everyone should support others.”
EVERGREEN: Is the Forest Service still stuck in the posts-war years?
RAINS: To be fair, there has been a tremendous amount of change in the Forest Service over the years. I am very pleased to see the leadership of Dan Jiron, Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment [NRE] As I would expect of Dan, he is facing the issue of sexual harassment and retaliation head on. Here is his plainly-worded March 2 assessment of the current situation:
- “While we have taken significant actions over the past several years to address sexual harassment in the Forest Service, we acknowledge that we have more work to do. We continue to consult with outside experts and focus internal resources to help us better support victims of harassment during investigations. Victims must know that there will be accountability for persons who engage in sexual harassment and reprisal. We are committed to our duty to create a workplace that is respectful, rewarding, and above all, a safe place for all employees.”
EVERGREEN: If you are named the next Chief, would you recommend that a new Deputy Chief be appointed whose only job is to investigate incidents involving accusations of sexual harassment?
RAINS: Please understand that I am happy being a Substitute Teacher and Homebound Tutor, and I don’t see myself as a candidate for anything else, but since you asked, creating a Senior Executive position with the title of “Ambassador for Inclusion,” reporting directly to the Undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment would be a great start.
I understand, some will not like this title. I am still tinkering with it myself, but someone with a clinical focus to ensure accountability and create lasting change is a must. I am not sure that this person should be granted a Deputy Chief title. My instincts say “no,” because I fear the position would be consumed by the current Forest Service organizational structure and culture, and nothing would change.
EVERGREEN: Maybe start by hiring a management consultant capable of dissecting the current Forest Service culture?
RAINS: Were I Chief, I would immediately call for a third-party, Independent Diagnostic and Evaluation (IDE) regarding all aspects of discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation at all levels of the Forest Service. The key is “independent, third-party.” The IDE will include key recommendations for immediate and lasting change to ensure the Forest Service becomes a more effective and contemporary public service agency, now and ahead. The IDE shall include a review and evaluation of the entire executive-level leadership of the Forest Service. An IDE Lead Evaluator, not from the Forest Service, will be named and approved by the Secretary of Agriculture.
EVERGREEN: Like separating the business of church from state.
RAINS: In a manner of speaking, yes. A suitable IDE could identify the need for what I have often called “Chief Worrier.” Someone, not from the Forest Service who possesses the skill and sanction to create lasting change, so the phrase, “zero tolerance in all aspects of discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation becomes a dominating core value in the Forest Service.” This is the chief responsibility of the Ambassador for Inclusion.
EVERGREEN: How might the Secretary of Agriculture move forward quickly with your recommended third-party assessment?
RAINS: The Secretary of Agriculture and the IDE Lead Evaluator, should develop an appropriate presentation depicting the Secretary’s values on discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation, as well as other associated items deemed critical to addressing this overall issue.
In this presentation, the Secretary should announce his plans for the IDE with the expectations of full support by all Forest Service employees. This presentation would go out immediately to all Forest Service offices as a must see.
Concert with the direction of the Secretary of Agriculture and the IDE Lead Evaluator, the Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment should immediately deal with sexual harassment accusations, holding guilty parties fully accountable for their actions.
EVERGREEN: For starters, why not poll every woman in the Forest Service to find out if they’ve ever been sexually harassed?
RAINS: I am sure the IDE would do something like that. The Forest Service sees itself as a science-based organization that is guided by facts. A very thorough diagnosis will test this assertion and deliver the kind of foundation required to guide effective and lasting change. This would help address an earlier question. It would be very instructional to know exactly where the Forest Service stands up against that 70 percent figure of women that experienced some type of sexual harassment in the workplace. If the agency can spend $1 million per hour fighting fires, it can certainly garner the resources to better quantify information so the foundation for a safe, vibrant working environment can be established.
Postscript: Coming up next, Mr. Rains discusses the damage done to the Forest Service’s reputation by the PBS documentary concerning sexual harassment in the agency. Also, the confusing wildfire paradox and the necessity of an aggressive forest management strategy that accompanies the fire funding fix recently approved by Congress.